It’s over 1,000 steps to climb Sigiriya Rock. But it’s worth each one as you pass landscaped gardens, colourful frescoes and playful monkeys before reaching sweeping views of a ruined ancient city.

By: Paul Healy | Published: 15 Dec 2017

Rising from the flat central plains of Sri Lanka, Sigiriya Rock stands tall and proud nearly 200 metres high. And standing on its summit are the ruins of an ancient civilization. It is one of the iconic images of Sri Lanka.

It may be a challenging 1,000 step climb to the summit, but each one is worthwhile as you pass through landscaped water gardens, striking frescoes and a monks hideout.

Playful monkeys keep you entertained as sweating and wheezing you finally reach the top and are rewarded with stunning views over the jungle-clad plains below and the remarkable ruins of the ancient city of Sigiriya.

Sigiriya, Sri Lanka side view


King Dhatusena reigned over the Mauryan dynasty of Sri Lanka from 455 to 473 CE. He had two sons. The eldest, Kashyapa was born to a non-royal concubine. Mogallana, although younger, was born to the royal consort and thus rightful heir to the throne. Kashyapa, with the help of the commander of the royal forces, staged a palace coup, exiled Mogallana to India, imprisoned his father and pronounced himself king.

Knowing Mogallana would summon an army and reclaim what was rightfully his, Kashyapa moved his capital from the exposed plains of Anuradhapura to the rocky summit of Sigiriya. The towering Sigiriya Rock would provide the basis for both a luxurious palace and an indestructible fortress and he set about building his new capital. He carved a magnificent protective Lion Gate at its entrance and surrounded the city with ramparts and a moat. A complex irrigation provided water for his people and their land.

But, luck was not on Kashyapa’s side and in 495 CE his army was defeated by Mogallana and he took his own life. Mogallana handed Sigiriya over to Buddhists Monks who used it as a monastery for the next 700 years.

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Sigiriya’s reign as capital over this land may have been short but the treasures it has left behind are remarkable, making it a must-see on any Sri Lanka itinerary. Next to the ticket office is an excellent museum which is well worth a stroll. It explains the history of the ancient city and Sigiriya frescoes that adorn the rock face. But don’t take any photos in there, we had to shamefully go through all our photos after we got caught taking a photo of an information board at the entrance!

Entering the site Sigiriya Rock rises above beautifully landscaped gardens. The perfectly symmetric gardens are some of the oldest surviving models of Charbagh, an Islamic garden style containing 4 quadrants, based on the 4 gardens of Paradise mentioned in the Qur’an. It’s a quiet place for a relaxing stroll.

As you begin your Sigiriya Rock climb, the land rises and the gardens become terraced. Grass and water give way to trees and boulders. These massive boulders were used as foundation stones and walls for the building and as protective entrances to caves for the Buddhist monks. An inscription in the walls offers thanks from the inhabitants to the landlords, not something you see much today.

Sigiriya Rock Climb


Leaving the trees behind the going gets tougher. It’s over 1,000 steps to the summit, with little shade, and lots of people. It can be a bit of a slog. But halfway climbing up Sigiriya Rock, the steps carved into the rock become a metal spiral staircase, which leads steeply up to an overhanging rock face about 100m above the ground. The rock face is adorned with a series of remarkable frescoes which provides an excellent excuse to catch your breath.

The Sigiriya frescoes portray beautiful buxom maidens scantily clad in thin clothing. The overhanging rock has protected them from the wind, sun and rain and the colours and images are still radiant and striking. It has been suggested the whole hill was a picture gallery of frescoes and perhaps the largest picture gallery in the world with over 500 images.

Further along, you come to the mirror wall, which used to be so polished the king could see his reflection in it. But over the years graffiti has been etched into the wall. Seeing as some of that graffiti is from the 8th century it has important historical significance.


Bending the corner the narrow path in the rock opens out until you are confronted with the colossal Lion Gate. This giant brick construction, shaped like a lion marked the entrance to the city. The head of the lion, once towering over the whole side of the rock, has long since disappeared and all that is left is a huge paw behind which a staircase commences the final steps on your Sigiriya Rock climb.

There is no denying that it is a steep climb up quite a few steps in the heat of the day. But monkeys playfully accompany your climb and the rewards of reaching the top are immediate. In every direction are sweeping views of flat tropical jungle out of which rises numerous rocky outcrops. National parks and tanks (large lakes) dot the landscape as mountains shimmer through the gathering haze. Take a seat, drink some water and savour the scene.

Sigiriya Rock Climb


While today only ruins remain, it’s easy to imagine the grandeur that would have accompanied this lofty palace. It contains swimming pools, spacious audience rooms and high-tech engineering. Although it lacks the quality and variety of the ruins at nearby Polonnaruwa, its location perched 200m in the air makes it unique.

It’s believed King Kashyapa completed the construction in only 7 years. The ancient city of Sigiriya Rock is a model example of ancient urban planning and impressive water and horticulture engineering. The large pool on the summit 200m above ground is still maintained to this day and offers a  glimpse of the impressive engineering required to fill it with water from the moats at the base of the rock.

It’s no wonder UNESCO deemed it a World Heritage site in 1982. Even less wonder it’s considered by locals The Unofficial 8th Wonder of the World and the iconic image of Sri Lanka.

Sigiriya Rock Climb


01 – The ancient city of Sigiriya is located 20-minute ride from Dambulla or Habarana.

02 – It takes about 1hour to ascend and a little less to get back. Allow 3 to 4 hours for the entire excursion.

03 – Try to arrive as early as possible to get the best light and avoid the afternoon heat and clouds.

04 – Bring walking shoes, sun-tan lotion, hat and plenty of water (there is no shade on the summit).

05 – And whatever you do, don’t forget your camera.


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Paul & Mark



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